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Not all harassment is equal, is it?

Woman with man's hand on her shoulder

While the number of allegations of sexual harassment past and present continue to grow, most attention has been on public figures in Hollywood, sports, politics and the tech industry. We read about huge payouts, firings and suspensions.

But if all you knew about sexual harassment was the first page of an Internet search, you might miss the impact that sexual harassment has on retention, productivity and profit in the everyday workplace.

Eighty percent of women who participated in a study by Heather McLaughlin, Christopher Uggen and Amy Blackstone who said they were sexually harassed changed jobs within two years. Women who were harassed were 6.5 times more likely to change jobs than those who had not been, according to “The Economic and Career Effects of Sexual Harassment on Working Women.”

You also might miss the impact harassment has on morale, absenteeism and workplace collaboration. If you only focus on the lawsuits, you might miss the psychic, emotional and physical impact that sexual harassment has on those who have been subjected to harassment.

Sexual harassment, bullying, inappropriate comments are all serious and need to be stopped. Egregious behavior should have consequences — but not every situation is equal.

Does every inappropriate action or comment warrant firing or suspension?

If we treat every instance the same, then we risk what one of my clients calls "creating a workplace of fear and unspoken tension, gender silos and where people are afraid to talk to someone of a different gender." Another client told me one of her employees asked to be transferred because a male colleague made her uncomfortable, but she didn't want the person fired, so she just wanted to change jobs. My client asked for my advice and alternative solutions.

After meeting with a group of leaders from different organizations to discuss these issues, we came to these conclusions:

  • Sexual harassment and inappropriate sexual behavior that continues must be dealt with immediately and severely.
  • Organizations can't afford to lose talented employees, destroy their reputation or suffer low morale because sexual harassment is tolerated. People can't be afraid to speak up or be worried about retaliation and having to work with the harasser while their complaint is investigated.
  • Employees who are targets of sexual harassment need to know they are supported and their complaints will be taken seriously.
  • All employees need to be trained on how to be active allies instead of silent bystanders.
  • Organizational cultures need to allow for feedback and dialogue, and they must support people's ability to change when the charges are less serious.
  • Creating an environment where employees get to know each other, share and hear stories about their experiences with harassment can increase empathy and prevent offensive, inconsiderate behavior.
  • Creating a process whereby people who feel they have been on the receiving end of inappropriate behavior or unwanted attention can give feedback to the "offender" can be empowering, increase confidence and stop the behavior right away.
  • Allow for the fact there will be times when someone is unjustly accused due to miscommunication and misunderstanding of intentions.
  • When people who are targets know they are heard, supported and can stand up for themselves and get results, they are less likely to leave the organization and will support others.
  • Less serious "offenders" who gain an understanding of their actions and stop those actions can be enlisted to educate others.
  • More needs to be done so that women, men and people who are non-binary can work together as equals without one gender having power over the other.
  • Some issues (not all) can be resolved through discussion and restorative justice.
  • Sexual harassment education is necessary, as is training in how to be an ally to stop sexual harassment, but sustainable change occurs with a change in systems and thinking.
  • More roundtables for leaders need to be held to share challenges, best practices and sustainable solutions to sexual harassment and other types of bullying.

Ultimately, leaders and anyone else who cares about harassment, retaining their best employees and eliminating people who are obstacles to gender equity in the workplace need to consider the roots of this problem. We must seek solutions that focus on changing the belief that women and other targets are less valuable, more disposable and someone to be objectified.

This blog first appeared on multibriefs.com.

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Simma Lieberman is a diversity and inclusion and culture change consultant, speaker and coach and a frequent contributor to the Network of Executive Women.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.